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Who’s the mystery man with the 90.6 VO2max?

March 30th, 2011

Interesting riddle posed by a case report in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (third post from that journal this week — I need to check it more often!): who is the mystery cross-country skier who appear to have one of the highest VO2max readings ever recorded, at 90.6 ml/min/kg?

Here are the clues:

  • The test was performed at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
  • The subject was “a young elite cross country skier,” male, 22 years old.
  • The test took place 4 years before the skier won an Olympic gold medal.

Austria didn’t have any gold medalists in XC skiing in 2010 (and none of the winners are the right age anyway). Same with 2006. They had a gold medalist in 2002 (Christian Hoffmann), but he’s two years too old. They did win the 2006 men’s team event in Nordic combined, and one of the team members — Michael Gruber — would have been 22 years old in 2002, four years earlier. But come on… are you telling me that the man with one of the highest VO2max readings in history was a part-time ski-jumper?! If so, that’s a pretty good reminder that VO2max isn’t everything…

So what is the ultimate highest value? The paper notes an “anecdotal report” in a 2003 textbook by Astrand of someone testing 94 ml/min/kg (anyone know who that was?). They also discuss some measurements on cyclists in the 1990s by Randy Wilber (who is a co-author of this paper) at the US Olympic Training Center. The 1997 paper they cite is a comparison of 10 mountain bikers with 10 members of the US Cycling Federation National Road Team, but they also cite some unpublished data on “American elite male road cyclists who had won individual stages (and the General Classification) of the Tour de France.” There aren’t many of the latter around, are there? Anyway, a few of these cyclists tested at over 80 ml/kg/min at 1860 metres, which they argue equates to 85-86 at sea level, and roughly comparable to about 90-91 if they were doing arm-and-leg exercise (like skiing) rather than just leg exercise (cycling).

But that’s a lot of approximations. I’ve never seen a peer-reviewed report over 90 until this one. Anyone else?

  1. Jules
    March 31st, 2011 at 08:02 | #1

    The mystery man is maybe not austrian, but the german biathlete Michael Rösch who won a gold medal in Torino in 2006 at 22.

  2. Felix
    March 31st, 2011 at 11:12 | #2

    I’ve already been attracted by that puzzle. It can’t be anybody else than Christian Hoffman, who won the 30km in Salt Lake City after they caught Muehleg for doping. The key clue is his small size (63 kg). On a sad note, a cloud of doping also surrounds Hoffman…. Nevertheless, one amazing aspect of this skier in addition to his VO2max is his high fat oxidation at high intensity. RER=0.53 at 164 beat/min is quite something!

  3. March 31st, 2011 at 18:15 | #3

    I’ve seen a few plots of Vo2max for xc skiers where there were many skiers with VO2max >85ml/kg/min. Bjoern Daehli always tops the list at 96 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VO2_max. There’s also this table with unchecked data – http://www.skibanter.com/showthread.php?t=9886&page=2

  4. March 31st, 2011 at 21:17 | #4

    I believe Begt Saltin published a paper on xc skiers back in 90′s with data showing pVO2 values in 90′s too. Can’t recall if it was him or another who suggested for gliding sports on variable terrain (i.e. xc skiing) pVO2 when expressed as ml/kg2/3/min explained more performance variability than ml/kg/min or l/min

    Swedish legend Gunde Svan was reportedly in high 90′sor even low 100′s- possibly cited in something linked via Saltin’s articles.

    Sorry I can’t be more precise, it was a long time ago!

  5. alex
    April 1st, 2011 at 00:33 | #5

    @Jules: Interesting possibility (the mystery man could certainly be German), but the numbers don’t quite add up for Rosch: the guy in the paper was 22 at the time of the test (if I’m reading it right), but won Olympic gold four years later at 26.

    @Felix: Now we’re getting somewhere. Hoffman would have been 22 from Dec. 22 1996 to Dec. 21 1997. He won gold in Feb. 2002, so four years and five weeks after his 23rd birthday. That means a test in the latter half of 1997 would fit all the requirements. As an additional piece of evidence, he retired in December 2009 (after being suspended for alleged blood doping), which would explain why the results are appearing only now: presumably the test results were kept confidential while he was competing.

    More on the case against Hoffman here. It certainly raises questions (though those questions were in my mind before I even knew who the athlete was) about whether the results were “natural.” Still, interesting point about his fat oxidation too — something that wouldn’t be affected by doping (or at least, it’s not immediately obvious to me that it would be).

    (As a related aside, I know Asker Jeukendrup has done a fair amount of testing on Haile Gebreselassie. And maybe Kenenisa Bekele too, I can’t remember. It would be cool if some of those results see the light of day after they’re retired!)

    @Craig and @Alan: Sounds like I’ll need to dig into some of those old skiing papers. I’ve certainly heard the stories about Daehlie — I’ve seen his value reported at 90, 94 and 96, and the 94 would fit with the “anecdotal” report in Astrand’s 2003 textbook.

    @Alan: Interesting point about scaling with body mass. I was speaking to Ben Levine last year, and he said that rowers, in particular, argue that mass should be raise to an exponent less than 1. I can’t remember if there was an actual physical argument for any particular scaling fraction — but intuitively, you can understand that a 6’8″ rower with large skeleton and muscle mass will never be able to compete with a 5’2″ waif of a distance runner on ml/min/kg, no matter how huge his absolute VO2 is.

  6. Felix
    April 1st, 2011 at 00:47 | #6

    In Rusko’s book on xc-skking (2003) he cite the highest VO2max values for Swedish (90 ml/min/kg; mean of 88) and Finnish xc-skiers (93 ml/min/kg mean of 86) in the 90′s (Table 1.8). Since the table also shows a steady increase with time, it is expected that the 2010′s values are even higher than this!!!

  7. alex
    April 1st, 2011 at 01:41 | #7

    @Felix
    Gotta love evolution… :)

  8. RH
    April 1st, 2011 at 09:59 | #8

    As to the scaling with body mass: Perhaps it has something to do with Kleiber’s law and the controversy whether the exact exponent is 3/4 of 2/3.

    http://homepages.cae.wisc.edu/~lakes/BME315ScalNat10.pdf

  9. jr
    April 6th, 2011 at 22:24 | #9

    Re: the cyclists

    Greg Lemond says he had a VO2 max of ’92, 93, 94′ and that his numbers compared to Daehle’s.

    http://bikeraceinfo.com/oralhistory/lemond.html

  10. alex
    April 6th, 2011 at 23:59 | #10

    @RH Cool stuff re. Kleiber’s law. Makes sense to me that similar arguments would apply to VO2max scaling.

    @jr Thanks for the link — interesting interview. Of course, Lemond says a lot of things… :) No, seriously, I have no trouble believing that those were his numbers, but those reports (and Daehlie’s, for that matter, as far as I can tell) still belong in a different category from “official” peer-reviewed reports. It’s like when shot-putters or long-jumpers hit a personal best during a workout — no matter how much we believe that it happened, it still doesn’t “count.”

  1. March 31st, 2011 at 14:11 | #1